This noteworthy set embraces all of Emil Gilels’s recordings for Deutsche Grammophon, including most of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, a project that was left sadly incomplete when Odessa-born Gilels died in 1985, a few days short of his 69th-birthday. In honour of his centenary this year, this 24-CD anthology comprises not only Gilels’s output for DG but also, occupying seven of the discs, recordings made in Russia from earlier in his career.
The analogue/digital Beethoven Sonatas (re-coupled onto nine CDs) are all here save for the first and last (Opus 2/1 and Opus 111) supplemented by two Kurfürsten-Sonaten (WoO 47/1 & 2) and the ‘Eroica’ Variations (Opus 35), a superb version of the latter. In general, Gilels’s approach to Beethoven is lucid, weighty, spacious and searching – but not lacking for flamboyance, sparkle or wit. Gilels’s sensitivity to touch and dynamics is especially rewarding, and his performances have the capacity to transport the listener. These are readings that are luminously sounded, and recorded with presence and clarity, that have stood the test of time and which continue to impress and illuminate, not least a magisterial account of the ‘Hammerklavier’ (including a sublime 20-minute slow movement). Magisterial is also an apt description for Gilels’s imposing accounts of Brahms’s Piano Concertos (No.1 especially) with the Berlin Philharmonic and Eugen Jochum.
Further Brahms includes solo pieces (the Ballades, Opus 10, and the wonderful Opus 116 Fantasias) and also the G-minor Piano Quartet (Opus 25), which Schoenberg orchestrated, the latter especially virile and accommodating much insightful interplay – the three members of the Amadeus Quartet and Gilels fully attuned to a concerted and compelling approach – the ‘Gypsy’ Finale an exhilarating whirlwind. Gilels’s single foray for DG into Chopin consists of grand and abundantly lyrical readings of the B-minor Sonata (No.3) and a trio of Polonaises. Twenty of Grieg’s picturesque Lyric Pieces, given with much affection, occupy the following disc.
A live recital of Mozart (given in Salzburg during 1970, and including the Sonatas K281 and K310), if rather ‘cold’ in terms of recorded sound is eminently stylish and moderated in the quality of performance, and Gilels is generous with repeats. Further Mozart involves the final Piano Concerto (No.27, K595) and the Two-Piano Concerto (K365), both with Karl Böhm and the Vienna Philharmonic, Gilels’s daughter Elena joining for the ‘double’ work. With the musicians all at-one, K595 is especially time-taken and autumnal, attenuating the supposed valedictory nature of the music. Certainly it’s all rather wondrous and hauntingly poetic. The more-brilliant K365 finds Elena and Emil as captivating partners, she his equal in terms of technique if not warmth of timbre, suggesting that she takes the primo part. On the next disc father and daughter perform a selection of Schubert’s four-hands pieces, including a disarming appraisal of the F-minor Fantasia (D940) and the sheer charm of the A-major Rondo (D951), flowing to its advantage and with numerous smile-inducing touches. As a sad postscript, Elena, Moscow- and Leningrad-trained, died young, aged 47 in 1996. This 79-minute CD also includes the ‘Trout’ Quintet (with Amadeus Quartet members Brainin, Schidlof and Lovett, joined by double-bassist Rainer Zepperitz, principal of Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic at the time) for something springy and communicative, enlightening teamwork again to the fore.
The septet of Russian recordings begins with a recital, including documents from 1935 and 1937, followed by those from the 1940s. Fieriness and compassion inform the Baroque numbers (not least five Sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti) and there are scintillating accounts of Schumann’s Toccata (Opus 7) and ‘Traumes Wirren’ from his Fantasy Pieces (Opus 12) and a tender one of Mendelssohn’s ‘Duetto’ (a Song without Words). Chopin and Liszt make up the balance. A second recital disc couples Beethoven’s Opus 2/3, more dazzling – a young man’s performance – than the DG re-make, with Medtner’s G-minor Sonata (Opus 22), a tempestuous and soulful creation, given by Gilels with sympathy.
The very welcome use of original cover artwork graces each of the discs. No.20 features cute and cuddly teddy bears for a Melodiya programme of Piano Trios by Haydn and Beethoven. Leonid Kogan and Mstislav Rostropovich are Gilels’s collaborators for an intense ‘Archduke’, spacious and big-hearted, the Scherzo given all its repeats to make it nearly as long as the opening movement, and the slow one is given with much wisdom. These great musicians resumes on the next disc (the cover this time sporting quarters of an orange) with another Haydn (a particularly joyous example), a momentous version of Schumann’s D-minor Trio (Opus 63) and Fauré’s C-minor Piano Quartet in which the viola-player is Rudolf Barshai, turbulent and arguably less than Gallic, but full of engaging responses, not least in the solemn Adagio.
Chamber music continues on disc 22, first with Brahms’s Horn Trio (the named instrument mastered totally by Yakov Shapiro and notably fruity in tone, the violin played marvellously by Kogan) is given a probing reading, the jaunty steps of the Finale a necessary foil to the gravity of earlier and with Shapiro exhibiting the call of the wild. The short, one-movement E-flat Piano Quintet of Alexander Alabiev (1787-1851) completes the disc, Gilels with the Beethoven Quartet (Shostakovich’s first chamber-music associates) in pleasant music of a Mozart/Beethoven axis without either quite emulated.
These precious and astonishing recordings have been re-mastered to exacting standards and sound just fine, offering no barrier to productive listening. So too the 1957 ‘Emperor’ Concerto, with a fully motivated Kurt Sanderling and the Leningrad Philharmonic, the cover displaying nuts and bolts – maybe a testimony to Soviet industry. Gilels gives a bracing explanation of the solo part, never forced or rushed though, and with regal poise evident during more-confidential passages; the slow movement has elegiac breadth. And how well engineered is the recording, not least regarding good balance between piano and orchestra. The final disc’s cover promises Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto, the information on the back cites Kabalevsky’s Piano Concerto No.3, which is what we get, conducted by the composer, a concise and agreeably tuneful confection. There is also another No.3, Prokofiev’s, enjoying Kondrashin’s vivid complement, in which Gilels is splendidly considered throughout, more interested in making music than being self-aggrandising. This is not a piece that I usually find much in, but this account of it is in many ways a revelation.
This then is a thoroughly commendable set, a handsome tribute to Emil Gilels’s artistry across several decades, culminating in his extensive DG catalogue (but he recorded elsewhere, such as for EMI, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concertos with Maazel, for example). The booklet is copious in its information and the by-composer index is handy. Strangely the total timings given for each disc are invariably incorrect (if usually by seconds, what we advise is accurate, checked by eye and calculator), but it’s nothing compared to the musical riches enshrined in this very recommendable release.